Inside Am-Pro Yamaha Off-Road Racing

June 8, 2011
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
Off-Road Editor|Articles|Articles RSS|Blog |Blog Posts |Blog RSS

Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA's Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn't matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

Saying Randy Hawkins is just a retired dirt bike racer is like saying Yamaha is just a motorcycle company. Yamaha sells ATVs, side-by-sides and generators, not to mention an entire catalog of musical equipment. Without these other business interests, many which have no relation to the two-wheeled realm, Yamaha wouldn’t be nearly the company it is today, and probably would never have employed the old dirt bike racer from Travelers Rest, South Carolina. Hawkins is best known in our industry as an accomplished rider and owner of the Am-Pro Racing team. But over the course of several days visiting his operations in S.C., we learned there’s much more to this man who was a dominant force in off-road racing for nearly 20 years.

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Take a peek behind the doors of Randy Hawkins’ racing empire in our Am-Pro Yamaha Team Insider Video.

Hawkins very nearly skipped out on motorcycles altogether. Originally he started out as a karting prodigy headed down the path to NASCAR stardom. When three years constitutes a significant portion of your life, having to wait that long before being eligible to race a full-size car seems like an eternity. Fortunately, the impatient Hawkins took up dirt bikes. He competed in his first motorcycle race at age 14, accompanied by one of his father’s friends and employees, Dale Stegall. (Stegall now wrenches for one of Randy’s top GNCC racers, Thad DuVall). In 1984, Hawkins competed in his first ISDE, eventually racking up 13 gold medals and two silvers. He turned pro in ’86 and established himself as the winningest National Enduro pilot of all time with seven championships. His racing path took him from Husqvarna to Suzuki for the majority of his career and then signed a contract with Yamaha in 1997. He was inducted to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2009, but along the way, Hawkins started giving back to the sport that gave him so much. Am-Pro Racing started just after his alignment with Yamaha and has since blossomed into one of the top off-road programs in America.

Am-Pro Racing
The old saying of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is especially fitting in the Am-Pro story. During his time in the saddle, Hawkins didn’t know it but someday he would head one of the most successful off-road racing programs in America. With manufacturing capabilities at their disposal, Hawkins started in the fabrication shop making parts that he needed. First it was oversized brake rotors which he also supplied to a guy named Jeremy McGrath (MC has 72 Supercross wins and seven SX titles. Hawkins has 73 National Enduro victories and seven championships.) Next were hand guard mounts which caught the attention of distribution giant Tucker Rocky. Before long it was time to make a real go of it and an opportunity presented itself in the form of a dying trash can company.

Randy Hawkins grew up in Travelers Rest, SC and now operates his championship-winning Am-Pro Yamaha team from his hometown.

Am-Pro was one of the Hawkins’ business interests that manufactured automatic trash cans. The company was in the process of being phased out, but instead the family elected to switch it over to the motorcycle business. The trash company already had product liability insurance, a major expense that the parts business was facing. With their ties to the Quaker State NASCAR team dissolved, the revamped Am-Pro (justified as American Professional Racer) had all of the tools needed to start its full assault on the East Coast racing world. Four wheels were replaced with two, mostly, and with the extra space afforded by the smaller racing effort, the old motor room was converted into a clubhouse where the guys still meet up occasionally for a well-deserved BBQ and cold beer. With Randy acting as the team owner, manager and lead rider, Yamaha quickly put their faith in his capable hands with sights aimed at GNCC, National Enduro, Hare Scrambles, OMA Cross Country and eventually EnduroCross.

Randy raced competitively until 2005 when a big practice crash testing with Jason Raines and Barry Hawk left him with a broken humerus (upper arm) and put him on the sidelines. As a veteran of the sport, Hawkins didn’t heal as quickly as he used to. After a slow rehabilitation, he officially hung up the boots in 2007 to focus exclusively on giving his team the tools to succeed.

Am-Pro has upgraded to a full semi-truck at the races and commands a presence on par with any of the other factories. Contracted team riders DuVall and Whibley are joined by XC2 rider Jordan Ashburn and the team’s only female rider, Jordon Milbauer.

Titan Industrial

Believe it or not, Hawkins has an actual desk job. He clocks in five days a week.

Racing is expensive, there’s just no two ways about it. Hawkins might have secured a long list of generous sponsors over the years, but the original backer was, and still is, his family business. Back in 1969, Randy’s father, Bobby Hawkins, began manufacturing automotive tools with his company, Carolina Tool. As a car-racing enthusiast, Bobby eventually established the Carolina Tools Racing team which became the Quaker State NASCAR team in 1987. Over the years, Bobby and his son learned plenty about racing in general, most importantly the business side of things. Infrastructure was built to house the auto team and those facilities would someday form the basis of Am-Pro.

In 2001, the Hawkins finished Carolina Tool and started American Fab Inc. making Titan Industrial power tools such as generators, pressure washers and air compressors. To this day Randy is part of the tight-knit administrative team alongside his sister, Dana Lang, while Bobby focuses on sales. In addition to the demands of running the race team, Randy spends five days a week at the Titan headquarters in an office cluttered with overbooked schedules, golf ball collections and the drawings of his three children. This is Randy’s “real” job.

The Farm
In order to flourish in the elite tier of modern professional dirt bike racing it requires more than a fast bike and excellent fitness. Riders need a support network of testing and training that goes beyond a membership to the local 24 Hour Fitness. Time in the gym has to be matched with time on the bike, and often simply getting from one to the other can be difficult. Travelers Rest is a small town and Hawkins’ multiple properties are all within about 15 minutes from each other. The Farm isn’t much of a farm at all in the traditional sense, but it does cultivate speed. Roughly 120 acres include expansive grassy fields, wooded hillsides and a passing stream. A small house is built on the property which is where Paul Whibley and his wife, Katherine, live with fellow New Zealander and full-time mechanic, Scott Brooker.

Am-Pro riders have motocross, EnduroCross and GNCC-style training courses at their full-time disposal in the same location.

As you would expect, a long, rough GNCC-style course winds its way back and forth over the hillside with ruts, exposed roots and steep elevation changes. From there it hits the flats and riders hammer through sandy whoops along the riverbank, winding into the back section and away from the Whibley home. On the other side of the property, laid out over the flat, sprawling fields are a motocross track and EnduroCross course complete with logs, rocks, tractor tires and a teeter-totter. Riders drag race each other down a long straight, perfecting the art of dead-engine starts. Thad DuVall is known as one of the most aggressive riders on the GNCC XC1 grid, and it obvious where he gets it as he pound laps on the moto track, flicking whips so flat they’re usually reserved for freestyle riders. The only thing missing is a trials course, but DuVall and his young teammates entertain themselves with bicycle balancing acts when not on their Yamahas.

No one will argue that being a well-rounded rider is a valuable asset for racing in general, and all of these different genres come into play over the course of a GNCC, National Enduro or OMA race. Having everything in one location makes the testing process more efficient. On the day we visited, Factory Connection was on hand to try out new suspension settings. But there’s plenty to do off the bike as well, and riders pack up and head off the Farm to handle the rest of their daily program.

Top: Randy is a very decent golfer.
Above: Racers stay in a dorm-like setting.

Boys’ Camp
Aside from the race shop and Farm, the final component is at the Hawkins’ personal property. A large piece of land contains Bobby and Randy’s personal homes, but also houses the rest of the Am-Pro racers for a good portion of the year. Industry friends are constantly stopping by as they travel the national circuit and Hawkins has set up a facility to accommodate the revolving door of moto heads. DuVall, who has been under Randy’s wing since he was on mini bikes (Randy’s kids call him Uncle Thad), is one of the young men who stay on the compound in a bunkhouse. It’s like a boys’ camp for dirt bikers. Even Milbauer stays in a room set up to offer privacy from the guys. The bunkhouse is connected to a garage that serves as a secondary race shop to maintain practice bikes, plus a laundry room, communal break room and a nearby gym that has every weight and workout machine imaginable. Goofing around on bicycles is a common pastime along with trying to shell Randy’s house with golf balls. Easier said than done; golf is Randy’s second love and he shoots a claimed 85 on the course. Even he can’t muster a drive long enough to dent his roof.

Family Man
Bouncing from the race shop to the Farm, across to Titan Industries and over to the dormitory and gym at the Hawkins’ home base, Randy points out several of his property interests. Travelers Rest is not a large place, but the Hawkins family has clearly saturated the community. He doesn’t boast or brag, but simply takes joy in sharing the story of his life. His cell phone rings constantly, which he ignores out of politeness, and he changes conversation topics with seamless transition. If we didn’t know better, we’d never guess the guy has spent one day on a motorcycle. Until prompted he talks about anything but. For a man whose entire life has been shaped by motorcycles, he’d almost rather talk about something else, preferring to swap fishing tales and offer golf tips.

How does someone with multiple national titles, a race team, two jobs and a host of time-consuming hobbies stay so grounded? It might not seem like he even has time for it, but the Hawkins’ home life is where it all comes together. We’ve heard Randy speak of his family in conversations before our visit, but a guided tour through the Am-Pro story proves just how important the family concept is for Hawkins. It was only fitting that our final stop was his personal home, where life, work, religion and racing all come together.

Randy’s unconventional home overlooks sprawling acreage and has a game room that makes others pale in comparison. Family comes first for the Hawkins. Fortunately, everyone in the Am-Pro organization is treated like they’re right at home.

After amusing and embarrassing ourselves with the golf clubs (DuVall and his crew are hardly any better), we finally meandered down the hill to Randy and wife, Cathy’s, own house to join everyone for a big, southern-style shrimp and sausage meal. Several dogs, all different breeds, greet us happily followed quickly by his 6-year-old twin daughters, CJ and Addie. As attentive as he’d been for the past two days, tabling business and sidestepping phone calls, Randy never brushed off a word from his girls, or 4-year-old son, Mitch. Clearly he practices what he preaches – family first.

The house itself is a trip. Unlike his parents’ beautiful home on the hill above, from the outside it looks like a large, rectangular steel barn. With multiple garage bays on one end and a covered porch running lengthwise it appears to be just another component of the racing program. From the outside it’s a modest building, but inside is quite different. First off, understand that this was originally supposed to be the ultimate bachelor house. Randy started designing it before meeting Cathy and it was going to be part home, part garage with the entire back half serving as a residence for his motorcycles. Being on the road so often, the building process was slow and he was married before ever completing it. From there it became a different story.

The front half is a comfortable, spacious two-story living area. You won’t find any obvious self-adoration adorning the walls, all of Randy’s personal awards (and there’re a lot) are tucked away in a small trophy room upstairs. The back half is where the fun starts. Instead of a garage it’s like the original Fantasy Factory – a playground haven for kids and adults. Set up for half-court basketball, it also has an enclosed trampoline, ping-pong table, jukebox, billiards and foosball. A full kitchen and restaurant-style seating make this the preferred spot for big get-togethers.

Top racers in all motorcycle genres regularly claim that the key to success is surrounding themselves with the right people. It’s clear that Hawkins embraces that concept in the Am-Pro Yamaha program – giving his riders everything they need to perform at maximum capacity. In order to be the best, these men and women must eat, breath and sleep racing. The pressure of high-stakes competition and the constant cycle of physical, mental and emotional strain can create frustration and burnout, especially when Lady Luck turns her back. That’s where Hawkins’ family approach and the slow, southern lifestyle come into effect. After watching his team of mechanics, riders, pit crews and spouses, at home and at the races, it’s hard to ignore the smiles and calm attitude – actually it’s infectious. A few days was only enough time to hang out and get a feel for what this team is all about, and we were fortunate enough to sample it in action during our 2011 Yamaha YZ450F GNCC Race Test. It might seem strange that Yamaha chooses to farm out its factory racing programs, but in the case of Am-Pro, it’s clear that Yamaha’s trust is well-placed.

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